Bottles concealed and revealed: examining the phenomena of stone and glass 'witch bottles' and their concealment in mid to late 17th-century England

Lead Research Organisation: Museum of London Archaeology
Department Name: Research and Education

Abstract

The use of glass bottles and German or English made stoneware bottles as 'witch bottles' and their placement / concealment in buildings, churchyards, ditches and riverbanks is an occurrence limited to the mid to late 17th century and (largely) particular to Greater London, Eastern England and certain South East counties of England. Whilst this represents the beginnings of 'witch bottles' and their concealment as a practice in the national context, it remains distinct from other forms of popular 'bottle' magic that emerge over the next two centuries across the British Isles.

This unique phenomenon has been interpreted in two ways. The first is for building protection: here the bottle was placed in the chimney/hearth or under a threshold as a spirit trap. Second is their use as containers of an administered cure against witchcraft. Written accounts from this period by Joseph Blagrave (among others) that describe the practice suggest the victim would fill bottles with urine, other contents such as pins, nails and thorns and / or personal objects (e.g. hair clippings) and then burn the bottle until it exploded or had it buried. This act would inflict pain on the witch and reveal both their whereabouts and reverse the curse.

Since 'witch bottles' were first reported in the 19th century, they have featured in a varied range of publications, are curated in numerous museum / folklore collections and archaeological archives, and discussed on websites concerned with paganism and folklore studies. Their numbers have grown from the few first mapped by archaeologist and museum curator Ralph Merrifield (1987) and have since been recovered from archaeological sites, building recording surveys and or/ historic building renovations. Although many stoneware and glass 'witch bottles' and their contents survive in the present, it is a partial resource that has never been critiqued and surveyed as a whole collection. With bottles often considered individually, interpretations are reliant on Merrifield (1987) and whilst the scientific analysis of liquid contents has since been emphasised by Massey (2000), engagement remains limited to a few independent (i.e. Hoggard 2004; Hoggard in Hutton (ed) 2015) and academic scholars (Davies, ibid). Discussion is largely disconnected from the building types the bottles are found in and their cultural context, such as how medicine was administered and understood during the early modern period, and the role popular magic played.

This application aims to recalibrate our understanding of these bottles and their contents over 36 months through collaboration and accessible research achieved through partnership with Nigel Jeffries as Principal Investigator (PI) and other archaeologists at MOLA with Professor Owen Davies and Dr Ceri Houlbrook of the History Department at the University of Hertfordshire (UH) - academics concerned with the study of magic, witchcraft, object concealment, popular medicine and the material culture of magic as Co-Is. Beneficiaries of this research will include not just historians and archaeologists of the period, but engage and inform museum / folklore curators, while the subject of witchcraft has an appeal that resonates beyond academia.

Further reading
Davies, O, and Easton T, 2015 'Cunning-Folk and the Production of Magical Artefacts' in R. Hutton (ed) Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery, and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic, Palgrave MacMillan, 209-32
Hoggard, B 2004 'The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic', in O Davies and W de Blécourt (eds) Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and magic in Enlightenment Europe Manchester: Manchester University Press, 167-86
Hoggard, B 2015 'Witch bottles: their Contents, Contexts and Uses' in R Hutton (ed) ibid, 91-105
Massey, A and Edmonds, T 2000 'The Reigate Witch Bottle' Current Archaeology (69, Vol XV (1), pp. 34-6
Merrifield, R 1987 The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, London

Planned Impact

The immediate beneficiaries of this research will be between the individuals undertaking this project and their institutions: this proposal hinges on a collaborative working partnership between the PI and staff at MOLA, an archaeological practice operating in the commercial / private sector, and academics in the University sector. A successful proposal would enable MOLA to enhance its research capacity, and the knowledge and skills of the PI and the staff involved. Furthermore it would build its IRO status and strengthen the institution's reputation for leading and managing cross and multi-disciplinary teams and projects. The opportunities embedded in this project would also impact and benefit the academic career of one of the Co-Is, Ceri Houlbrook, currently an Early Career Researcher in History and Folklore, with the various impact pathways, methods and disseminations proposed by this project providing for further career development.

Outside of the academic community, the research generated by this proposal impacts on six of eight users and beneficiaries defined in the AHRC's Research Funding Guide (2018, Version 4.1, 58-9). The methods and channels by which these constituents will be reached are considered in more detail elsewhere (Jeffries_Pathways).

1. Public sector agencies or bodies: An important objective with a long-term legacy is to increase the visibility of witch bottles on the Historic Environment Record (HER) online resource managed by Historic England (HE) in partnership with the Association of Local Government Archaeological Offices (ALGAO) and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC). This will be achieved by the enhancement of this resource through the translation of the 'witch bottle' catalogue by the PI (see Objectives OB2) for each county HER to input.

2. Commercial / private sector: archaeologists and building archaeologists working for commercial archaeological companies and practices who encounter and discover 'witch bottles' either through excavation or during standing building recording prior to the alteration of a historic building. This group will be reached by dissemination through publication and targeted presentations.

3. Practitioner groups: The subject of popular magic and object concealment will be of interest and relevance to those practitioner groups focused on post-medieval archaeology, medieval and later ceramics and folklorists. A fourth body are volunteers and professionals concerned with building conservation and recording. These constituents will be reached and engaged during the project's duration through targeted presentations delivered to the conferences they host by the PI and Co-Is and published disseminations.

4. Third sector: the methodology required for the 'witch bottle' survey and catalogue (see Objectives OB2) requires significant engagement and knowledge exchange between the project team and the curators and staff of the publicly-funded museums and institutions these objects are displayed and stored.

5. The media: the subject of object concealment and popular magic in the early modern period has a wide appeal and should be of interest to national and regional media outlets (broadcast, print and digital). They will be reached through the development of a targeted and integrated communications strategy working with the Marketing and Communications team at MOLA.

6. Wider public in general: like the media outlets, it is anticipated the research generated by this proposal and its subject matter will generate public interest. We will reach this group by the production of outputs for wider audiences, including social media, and using the already well-established, publicly-accessible, web-based platform - 'Concealed Revealed' Historypin collection created by Houlbrook. https://www.historypin.org/en/person/66740.

Publications

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Title The Life and Times of a Witch Bottle 
Description The animation was the result of successful application to the AHRC in a response to emergency call made in the summer of 2020 (https://ahrc.ukri.org/documents/calls/arts-and-humanities-in-quarantine-guidance-notes/) which invited proposals from AHRC-funded researchers to take part in a project that will partnered them with professional film-producers and film-makers to bring their research to a wide public audience via BBC Arts. PI Jeffries and Co-investigator Professor Owen Davies (University of Hertfordshire) subsequently worked and developed the animation between July and November 2020 with the British based media production company Calling the Shots and animator Laura-Beth Cowley on the production of a five minute animation titled 'The Life and Times of a Witch Bottle' for the 'Animated Thinking' series for the BBC Arts Culture in Quarantine and other BBC platforms in November 2020. The animation therefore represented a positive impact of the Covid pandemic for the project. See also 'Further Funding' and 'Collaboration and Partnership' headings. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact The animation went live on the BBC website in November 2020. A search via Kantar Media search tools by the University of Hertfordshire in January 2021 records that the animation had obtained a reach number of 1,916,376. 
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08z33tb
 
Description Arts and Humanities in Quarantine
Amount £24,414 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/S002693/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2020 
End 10/2020
 
Description Partnership with British based media company Calling The Shots and animator Laura Beth-Cowley for the production of BBC Arts animation The Life and Times of a Witch Bottle (see also Artistic and Creative Products) 
Organisation Calling the Shots
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution This partnership was a result of an AHRC and BBC Arts 'Culture in Quarantine Call' made in the summer of 2020 (see Further Funding) that invited proposals from current AHRC-funded research projects that could be made into 5 minute animated films in collaboration with professional animators and a production company. The PI and Co-I Davies successfully applied and were awarded just over £24,000 by the AHRC and were partnered with Calling the Shots as professional film-producers and film-makers to bring their research to a wide public audience for BBC Arts as part of a series called Culture in Quarantine. Working with Calling The Shots, the PI and Co-Is role was to principally write and develop the script, source images for the animation and liaise with Calling The Shots chosen animator, Laura Beth-Cowley.
Collaborator Contribution Calling the Shots managed the technical and creative production of the animation and contributed the following roles: · Management and coordination of the animation · They supported the PI Jeffries and Co-I Davies to develop the film proposal to a stage where it could be shared with the animator for production and creative development · Identified and commissioned the animator Laura Beth-Cowley, to create appealing and creative imagery for delivery of the project · Managed and supported the development process between the PI Jeffries and Co-I Davies and the selected animator · Ensured animator Laura Beth-Cowley provided timely treatments, storyboards or animatics · They managed the delivery of animations as agreed between the PI Jeffries and Co-I Davies and animator Laura Beth-Cowley · Identified and commissioned the sound design and voice over for completion · Identified the music for use in the animated film, by using production music · Ensured all engaged artists and creatives had completed suitable contracts to enable all finished animations to be delivered free of all legal restriction on their usage · Had the responsibility for all payments for production work, including by animators, editors, sound designers and others who may be required, undertaken under the terms of the agreement and the Memorandum of Understanding between MOLA, AHRC and Calling the Shots.
Impact The collaboration and partnership brought into dialogue PI Jeffries (from MOLA, an archaeological practice) and Co-I Davies (from the academic sector) with Calling The Shots from the media sector. This engaged the PI nor Co-I with the novel activities of script writing and animation production. In addition it was the first time that anyone at the PI's workplace, MOLA, had been involved in animation production, and whose academic outputs are largely tailored towards publication.
Start Year 2020
 
Description Blog hosted on MOLA website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 'What should you do if you find a 17th century 'witch bottle' was a short informative blog that described the bottles, their contents and places of concealment. It also signposted the process and procedures for reporting these objects and which professionals and practitioners should be contacted in the event of being found. The links to this blog were also shared on MOLA's social media channels - Twitter and Facebook.

The key google analytics for this blog (4th April 2019- March 02nd 2020) are as follows:
No. of pages views: 3188
Unique page views: 2682
Avg time on page: 2.15 minutes

A further impact is that when the term 'witch bottle' is googled, this blog and the project this award has supported appears on the first results page, a visibility that has led to requests for further information from journalists and media outlets in particular, including most of the interviews noted here and recorded elsewhere under Engagement Activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.mola.org.uk/blog/what-should-you-do-if-you-find-17th-century-witch-bottle
 
Description Engaging with Independent Research Organisations - Exploring Research, Policy and Practice Interfaces 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact My experiences of being a PI working for an IRO on AHRC award has stimulated me to develop a broader interest in the Independent Research Organisation (IRO) community my workplace is part of and how my workplace can build its research capacity, culture and community. Attending this IROC event gave me an opportunity to see first hand how my experiences were similar or different to others in sector.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Interview for Atlas Obscura - 'Yes, It's a Witch Bottle Hunt' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview given to Atlas Obscura with the aim of signposting and communicating the project to its largely millennial audiences, the links to which was also advertised on their Twitter and Facebook platforms.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/witch-bottles-project-in-britain
 
Description Interview for Research Professional - 'My Winning Proposal: Drafting a first-rate bid to the AHRC' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Interview for Research Professional - 'My Winning Proposal: Drafting a first-rate bid to the AHRC'; interview with Sophie Inge at Research Professional for Research Fortnightly (28th Nov 2019). This was a useful platform to think about and communicate to other UK academics my experiences of writing a successful AHRC research bid. Research Professional has 300 academic institutions subscribe to the website, 120 of which are in the UK with over 300,000 visits to the website each month
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation on the project to the London and Middlesex Archaeology Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation on the project to the London and Middlesex Archaeology Society, invited to present as part of their yearly speaker programme. I used this talk to signpost the project and its aims but also to deliver its results in the first nine months and explore and question the audience on their perceptions of witch bottles, what they think they were used for and why they think they were created.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Presentation on the project to the Orpington & District Archaeological Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation given to the Orpington & District Archaeological Society as part of their annual lecture programme. I used this talk to not only signpost the project and its aims but also to explore and question the audience on their perceptions of witch bottles, what they were used for and why they think they were created.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Presentation to work colleagues 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I gave a presentation to work colleagues as part of my workplaces monthly staff meetings, informing them about my experience of developing the project and the application process to the AHRC, as well as outlining the project and its planned impacts and outcomes. Sparked plenty of questions about the project, process and practice and how MOLA builds in its IRO status and develops capacity in this area.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Project web page hosted on MOLA website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Creation of project page on my institutions website to report success in obtaining the award, to reference the funding body and introduce project partners and provide a brief summary of the aims and objectives of the project. This was advertised via MOLA's social media channels, notably Twitter and Facebook.

The google analytics for this page (4th April 2019 to 02nd March 2020) is as follows:
No of page visits: 4113
No of unique visitors: 3603
Avg amount of time spent on page: 4.22 minutes

A further impact is that when the term 'witch bottle' is googled, this blog and the project this award has funded appears on the first results page, a visibility that has generated requests for further information from journalists and media outlets in particular, including the interviews recorded elsewhere under Engagement Activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.mola.org.uk/witch-bottles-concealed-and-revealed
 
Description Twitter campaign 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The blogs recorded elsewhere under Engagement Activities and the project in general were supported by three Twitter posts & threads that featured on MOLA's Twitter page, outputs written by MOLA's communications team and the PI. These posts were intended to advertise the 'witch bottle' project (April 2019 Twitter post) to the diverse audiences which follow MOLA on Twitter and to then report it's progress (October and November 2019 posts).

These three posts (to date, 9th March 2020) generated a total of 144,557 impressions and 6835 engagements, the last of which can be further broken down and tabulated as follows:

Engagement Total
Hashtag clicks 57
Link clicks 209
Likes 498
Retweets 258
Media engagements 5218
Detail expands 343
Profile clicks 226
Replies 26
Total 6835

(the URL link provided below is to the April 2019 post)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://twitter.com/MOLArchaeology/status/1118824205615816705
 
Description Uncovering the mythical secrets of 'witch bottles' - interview given for blog post on Arts and Humanities Research Council website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Gave interview on the project for blog post and content for the Arts and Humanities Research Council website, under the Research and Read, Watch & Listen tab. This was to promote and communicate the project and award in its first few months. It was also promoted on the AHRC Twitter page with the following post

https://twitter.com/MOLArchaeology/status/1139181381987315712 (this received 29 retweets and 36 likes)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://ahrc.ukri.org/research/readwatchlisten/features/uncovering-the-mythical-secrets-of-witch-bot...